Amish 'shadow economy' offers cheap discarded goods
Consumers seek salvage bargains
MESOPOTAMIA, Ohio - In a quiet, gas-lit farmhouse, two girls in bonnets and long blue dresses wrap tape around outdated bottles of Newman's Own salad dressing, and wipe dust off dented cans of vegetables and crumpled boxes of Butterfinger candy bars.
They are picking through the leftovers from America's supermarkets.
Amish-run salvage stores, a thriving discount industry tucked away in America's farmlands, sell expired food and medicine dirt-cheap. This shadow economy, run by people who typically shun modern methods of commerce, is drawing a steady stream of non-Amish customers seeking bargains.
"We have anything from a Mercedes in our parking lots down to horse and buggies," said Ray Marvin, general manager of BB's Grocery Outlet, an Amish-owned salvage store chain in Quarryville, Pa.
The customers are after prices resembling those of old-fashioned nickel-and-dime stores - paper towels for 50 cents a roll, salad dressing for 10 cents a bottle.
Except for baby formula, the Food and Drug Administration doesn't prohibit the sale of expired foods or medicine. The agency bars the sale of adulterated or misbranded drugs, but those are evaluated case by case.
Everything else is fair game - "buyer beware," as B&K Salvage owner Bill Gingerich puts it.
Salvage goods also show up on the shelves of some close-out stores, but those primarily sell bulk wholesale and overstocked goods at discounted prices.
"We've been amazed, how good we've done," says Rebecca Miller, an Amish woman who opened N&R Salvage with her husband last year on the outskirts of Mesopotamia, in northeast Ohio. The couple has never taken out an advertisement, she says, but the customers keep coming.
While most of these Amish-run businesses have been around for several years, store owners say business has picked up considerably in recent months as consumers struggle with rising gasoline and food prices, a credit crisis, and home foreclosures. While some stores advertise in local newspapers, their popularity has largely spread through word-of-mouth.
Several Amish businesses declined to cite sales figures. Non-Amish salvage store owners also report climbing sales.
Mike Mitchell, owner of Amelia's Grocery Outlet in New Holland, Pa., says sales grew by 12 percent in 2007, and his chain of 11 stores is on pace to increase sales by 23 percent this year.
There are at least six Amish-run salvage stores in northeast Ohio and nearly a dozen in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, forming something of a discount shopper's marathon course.
"A lot of people drive from one salvage store to the next and see how many bargains they can get," says 41-year-old Barbara Byler, an Amish woman who runs Shedd Road Salvage in Burton, Ohio. "Some people don't have jobs. We expected them to come."
Only the savviest bargain hunter would be able to find N&R Salvage, perched on a grassy slope with open fields as far as the eye can see. The store is heated by a single coal-burning stove, and Miller rings up customers using a battery-operated cash register.
The Amish are scattered across 28 states, with the highest populations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.
A deeply religious group, they traditionally live off the land and without electricity, among other modern amenities. Yet many have abandoned farming for family businesses, construction work, and factory jobs.
Heavy losses of manufacturing jobs have hurt Amish and non-Amish alike in northeast Ohio. The nearest city, Cleveland, recently landed on a list of the country's top five poorest urban areas.
"I'm trying to find ways to cut back on my grocery bill," says 73-year-old Shirley Baxter, pushing a shopping cart down the aisles of B&K Salvage in Middlefield, Ohio. "And a place like this helps. At our age we're on a fixed income."